HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — No less than 10 times per camp — or clinic, or class, whatever you’d like to call it — Mark Burik and Brandon Joyner will turn to one another and stumble upon the same discovery they stumble upon on an almost-weekly basis: “People love volleyball.”
That word — love — can be in italics and bold and a font that would be far too big to be appropriate for this page. Love might not even be the correct choice, for it just doesn’t do it justice. Is there a single word in the English language that can properly package the passion, the enthusiasm, the obsessiveness, that comes with training for six, sometimes seven hours a day — and then booking a private lesson with either Burik or Joyner or one of their coaches at Better at Beach at 7 the next morning?
“So they’re waking up at 6:15, and we’re coming out, brutalized with a cup of coffee, and we’ll just hear the sounds of peppering, and we’re like ‘What? What are they doing?’” Burik said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.
What they are doing is exactly what Burik bet on a large portion of the population intending on doing when he initially founded VolleyCamp Hermosa and then rebranded it to Better at Beach: They’re attempting to, ahem, get better at beach volleyball.
They know they’re not going to become professionals. They know you will not see them competing on an AVP Sunday, or streamed on Volleyball TV somewhere in Europe. The clientele for Better at Beach is very much what you might find at, say, a local country club: normal, middle-aged folks seeking a challenge, a community, a way to stay fit and active and pushed in a manner that lights up their brains with endorphins from exercise and the sweet satisfaction of learning new skills.
“Adults already love volleyball when they come, which is cool. But then they get addicted to the feeling of improvement, and that doesn’t happen a lot after college, if you were lucky enough to play in college,” Joyner said. “It’s cool as an adult, especially with volleyball, because it’s very technical, so you teach them something and they get better at it, and they think ‘Oh cool, I’m 48 years old and I’ve gotten better at something.’ Now they think they can get better at setting, they can get better at hitting, and it makes them think outside of volleyball, which is cool, because it helps them realize they can pick up anything so long as they have passion and put time in.
“You realize that you are building a community, you’re bringing people together that probably wouldn’t be together and now they’re best friends. That goes into seeing improvement and betterment of life and it’s fun.”
For years, VolleyCamp Hermosa was a virtual one-man band. It was Burik’s company, growing exclusively as he envisioned it growing. And it was successful. Checked every box a young entrepreneur would want checked. Yet something was missing.
“If I build an empire — imagine someone sitting at the top of the hill, all proud, but alone, just, oh, that’s not cool. I want to sit when I’m 50 with a glass of whiskey and a big pile of money with my buddy, and we can celebrate,” said Burik, who is 14 years away from his envisioned retirement of whiskey and piles of money at 50. “It would be silly to build it on your own.”
In came Joyner, one of his closest friends, a former teammate at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. They met during Joyner’s freshman season, and so pudgy was Joyner that when enrolled, Burik dubbed him “bubbles,” Joyner said, laughing, “because my body didn’t have any shape.”
Such is the barbed, testosterone-fueled love language of male college athletes. Almost as immediately as Burik tabbed the young setter with the nickname did he take him under his wing, showing him how to lift, shaping that previously amorphous bubble-body.
“He taught me how to work hard,” Joyner said.
After both finished their professional indoor careers in Sweden, Burik made the move to California to pursue a career on the beach as both a player and entrepreneur. Joyner put his degree to use and began teaching in Virginia, using his summers off to visit Burik in California.
“I’d probably stay too long,” Joyner said. Until he just quit teaching and stayed for good, joining Burik at what was then VolleyCamp Hermosa.
“From day one, he gave me as much responsibility as he could, but at the same time, he said pretty much anything I thought could work, to run with it,” Joyner said. “That’s a really cool feeling as someone who is new to an area who wants to be a part of something, your best friend having that much faith in you: don’t ask me, just go for it.”
They had similar goals in mind, with a similar skillset: Teaching the game of beach volleyball. And they’re good at it. Excellent, in fact. Yet Burik did the math one day: Physically, he can only be in one place at any given time. The amount of individuals he can teach is therefore capped.
He didn’t like that.
“I wanted to leave a mark on the sport. If I’m coaching one person or 12 people on a court, I could use that same amount of time and coach thousands,” he said. “That’s how you build a baseline and that’s how you create an evolution, once everybody knows the basics. Now the sport moves faster and we have a way bigger influence.”
On a road trip during the Thanksgiving prior to COVID, they bought the domain name, betteratbeach.com. Serendipitous timing: Months later, the beaches were closed. If people did, truly, want to get better at beach, they’d have to do so online, in their homes, in their backyards, using their walls, their roofs, their dogs, their girlfriends or boyfriends, whatever they could find. Burik and Joyner were ready to deliver the how-to for just that.
“The pandemic, unfortunately for everything that was going on, was obviously a bad time for a lot of people, but for us, it was great, because it allowed five months straight of constant work,” Joyner said.
The filmed and published online courses. The subscriptions on their YouTube channel exploded by tens of thousands. They blogged. Uploaded video chats on everything from how to work out at home — thanks Sam Pedlow — to the mental side of competing in a big match (Casey Patterson). They delivered and the community responded. So much so that, as the country eased out of the pandemic, Better at Beach began hosting weeklong clinics around the United States, from Salt Lake City to St. Petersburg, Fla. Soon, Burik and Joyner were being recognized at tournaments everywhere they went. Soon, it wasn’t Joyner being confused for a smaller Ed Ratledge — it was Ed Ratledge now being confused as a bigger Brandon Joyner. At both AVP stops this season, in Austin and New Orleans, you didn’t have to look hard to spot the Better at Beach logo dotting the stands.
“The family aspect of what we’re doing is really cool,” Joyner said. “The people who come to our camps and classes take a lot of pride in being a part of it.”
It’s tiring work, building Better at Beach. It’s tiring, too, physically coaching the classes and clinics, which, according to their WHOOP straps, burns more calories than when they are actually practicing themselves. But the ups and downs and failed experiments and shots of successes in between are all more than worth it. They know what they’re doing is bigger than volleyball, despite the very name of their company suggesting it’s all about simply getting Better at Beach volleyball.
“We’ve seen people pull themselves out of depression. It’s crazy to say that volleyball has literally saved people’s lives,” Burik said. “One of our guys lost over 80 pounds just committing himself to volleyball. He cleaned up his diet a little bit, but he just said ‘I’m going to come to all of the classes.’ It brings health back. When you improve in something you feel capable in all of the other areas in your life. When you get knocked down or stagnant, for some reason you don’t feel capable or confident. I’ve questioned it for years: Does volleyball really make the world better? Then you realize all of those lines, it truly, truly does.”